hen Jacob was fleeing from a brother who sought to kill him and (Jacob) was also looking for a wife; he had a vivid dream.
He saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it … (Genesis. 28: 12-17)
He ended up being successful in staying away from his brother and finding a wife but in the process, he also had to endure twenty years of deceit and hardship from his father in law. When Jacob and family decided it was time to head back to his home town, he has another vision. This time instead of seeing individual angels he saw an encampment of them.
So he called the name of the place Machanaim (lit. an encampment of angels). (Gen. 32:2-3)
A chapter of his life was now completed. When Jacob had arrived in Haran twenty years previously he was single, by the time he left he was married, had 13 children, and had laid the foundation of the Jewish people. What’s noteworthy is that this great accomplishment didn’t happen in a supportive or nurturing environment. It didn’t happen in the Land of Israel, which usually serves as the cradle of our people and the home his illustrious parents (Isaac and Rebecca) and grandparents (Abraham and Sara).
The foundation of the Jewish people was born and built in a milieu of deception; the house of the deceiving and cunning Lavon. While working for Lavon, Jacob didn’t have working conditions that allowed for a short work day and long vacations, which would have allowed him to spend time educating and bonding with his children. Here is what he told Lavon before leaving.You demanded compensation from my hand whether [an animal] was stolen from me by day or night. By day heat consumed me, and ice by night. My sleep was taken from my eyes. These twenty years that I have been in your house…you have changed my wages twenty times. (Gen. 31:38-41)
He was overworked and mistreated for twenty years and wanted to return home but Lavon did everything he could to prevent that. The twenty-year struggle to create a noble family who would transmit the main teaching of Abraham—ethical monotheism—was undertaken in an environment of hatred, oppression, and idolatry. He didn’t achieve this goal despite the negative environment, rather because of it. He could not have achieved what he did if he had remained in the comfort and nurturing environment of his parent’s home.
Jacob’s story is the story of the Jewish people. It took the crucible of 210 years of slavery in Egypt to produce a nation that would be able to withstand the obstacles we’ve faced. Some of our greatest moments and scholarly works were produced during the persecutions of the crusades, expulsion from Spain, and even the ghetto during WW II. It’s the difficult times that seem to bring out the best in us.
There is symbolism is Jacob’s encounters at the beginning and end of his twenty-year journey. When he finally detached his family from his father in law’s grip, he encountered an encampment of angels but when he began his journey (twenty years earlier) he saw angels in his dream, but not an encampment of them. He only achieved greatness after twenty years of remaining true to himself and his mission; after daily struggles of having to retain his integrity amidst an environment hostile to everything he stood for. This is symbolized by his vision of an encampment of angels. When we contrast the visions, it is apparent that the greater of the two happened only after the years long struggle of remaining true to his purpose and calling.
Jacob’s life is meant to serve as a template for ours. We yearn for comfort, warmth, sleep, or simply finding an easy opportunity to stimulate nerve endings. We long for an easy life but can you name a single person you admire or aspire to be who hasn’t overcome adversity? People with a challenging marriage but who stick through it end up being more understanding of others and their difficulties. People with special needs children have challenges on a daily basis that would break other people, yet they become extremely strong, kind, and understanding because they had to deal with these challenges. People who have children with mental health issues live in a nightmare of mood swings from depression to anger to being impossible to deal with, yet when I speak with them, I sense I am talking to an emotional navy seal. They don’t see it in themselves but commitment for them is a real concept entailing years of hard work, not just a word thrown around at cocktail parties or used in campaign speeches. People who deal with aging parents sometimes feel exhausted, spent, and ready to give up but they don’t. Many of these people serve as my teachers in some of life’s my critical areas such as commitment, responsibility, and being a giver.
The Almighty grants all of us opportunities to reach our potential so when challenges come our way, let’s embrace them rather than complain. Even the long-term commitments that have inconveniently come our way can be opportunities if we embrace them and change our internal narrative. We might not have asked for them but once they’ve fallen into our lives, we may as well use them to our advantage. As the old Jewish proverb says, “G-d, I’m not asking for a lighter burden, just for stronger shoulders.”What are your challenges? Remember, as a descendant of Jacob your spiritual DNA allows you to access the prototype created by him. It’s an attitude that allows one to have peace of mind to deal with life on life’s terms.
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